July 10, 2009
Usually, star players publicly deflect Heisman hype, which is fine by me, given my own aversion to the H-word. In fact, I'm trying to remember the last plausible candidate who actually admitted he wanted to bring home the trophy instead of retreating behind the P.R. wall and its great repeller of individualism, "team goals." Of course, the individual award would be nice, but anyone perceived as arrogant enough to deign to care about such self-absorbed frivolities risks his candidacy, anyway, since Heisman winners are above all "likable," in a generic way, and almost never prima donnas by reputation.
It's certainly debatable whether USC's Taylor Mays qualifies as a plausible candidate, given that Heisman winners are all also offensive skill players judged largely on outsized numbers, a role Mays -- for all his obvious talents, including knocking multiple players unconscious at once and levitation -- hasn't played at USC and has no plans to play, even in the special teams and limited two-way roles that helped Charles Woodson transcend the de facto ban on defenders in 1997. Mays typically delivers concussions and other pleasures reserved largely for the scouts, not dynamite box scores. But he's also an ambitious guy, and all those reach-for-the-stars types have to set concrete goals for themselves:
"I want to win the Heisman — 10 sacks, 10 picks and we go undefeated. (I won’t return kicks); I’ll just return my picks for touchdowns," Mays said. "I have to return three of them for touchdowns and maybe force a couple of fumbles on the sacks.
"I at least want to go to New York."
That's a man with a plan, at least (or maybe just a crackling sense of humor), but alas, less opportunity if his first three years are any indication: Offenses learned quickly to avoid Mays' side of the field, with the result that his interception total fell from three in 2006 to one in 2007 to zero last year; he hasn't notched a sack or a touchdown in his career. For defensive backs, a relative lack of stats is a sign of respect, but the fact is that any numbers in the key categories would be a dramatic step up for Mays, much less an award-winning trail of destruction that would require a vast overhaul of USC's entire defensive scheme to implement.
If you want a defensive player with the skill and the numbers to show up on the radar with vastly more hyped quarterbacks, the obvious choice is Eric Berry, whose seven picks, nine tackles for loss, three sacks and two touchdowns for a vastly underrated Tennessee defense earned him a hat tip as my Alternate Reality Heisman winner before last year's actual ceremony. Berry's averaged 41 yards on a dozen INT returns over two years, has returned the odd kickoff and was rumored to be in the mix last summer as an occasional weapon on offense to alleviate a dreadful quarterback situation that hasn't improved. If there's another Charles Woodson -- and I think it's safe to say that's a very, very long shot -- Berry is pretty obviously the guy.
Then again, Berry doesn't flash his winning smile with cavorting the Song Girls -- always a winning combination -- so maybe Mays is savvier about the game than I'm giving him credit for.